Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Blinded by the times

When he wrote the essay on the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Indians, Alvin Josephy took great pains to place it all in historical context. And he credited the company with high mindedness in establishing standards for dealing with the Indians—the traders were not to use alcohol as trade goods, not to marry Indian women, and were to build peaceful relationships with them and promote peace among the tribes. Measured against French, American, and other British traders, Josephy gives the HBC good marks.

“Nevertheless,” says Josephy, “the relations between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the American Indians can be seen fairly and truly only from a perspective that recognizes the imperialistic dynamics of the company during its fur trade heyday [1670-1870]…” The lynchpin of those dynamics was the doctrine of discovery, a notion of sovereignty developed by the Catholic Church and European governments which assumed that Europe and European culture and religion were superior to all indigenous peoples and cultures in the rest of the world, and then gave European powers control of those people and lands by discovery and conquest. This agreement among European people and powers—that some humans were by God’s law and grace superior to others—drove imperialism for at least two centuries.
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In the emerging American colonies the slave trade was crucial to development—to the agricultural development in many colonies and to the commercial development of others. As the idea of independence from England spread, there was some debate about slavery, but, in the end, even its detractors caved in to an American assumption, an often open but almost universally implicit notion, that whites were by nature superior to people of color. John Adams deplored slavery, but realized that a union could not be secured without it. Jefferson deplored slavery, but held his slaves, and on his death, freed only a handful, allowing the larger number of them to be sold to pay down debts. Even the “enlightened” were blinded by, or at best compromised by, their times.
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Fast forward to our own times. A dozen years ago I was putting together a Fishtrap program exploring the “legacy of Vietnam.” I recruited Viet vet and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa and other veterans who had written short stories and novels about their experiences. And Xuan Nguyen, a Vietnamese war widow who had served as translator to an American war widow as she went to Vietnam to see the place and circumstances of her husband’s death, and to produce a documentary about it called “Regret to Inform.”
I thought it would also be good to have a resister, one of the men who had gone to Canada to avoid the War, and mentioned this to writer friend Valerie Miner. “What do you mean, the men who went to Canada?” she said. “What about the women? Who do you suppose made the meals and put together the paperwork?” She had been one of them, and after Canada had moved to Sweden and to England before returning to the States—then only after amnesty was declared.

I thought back to my own Vietnam War years. I had been in the Peace Corps when it all exploded, got easy deferments then, and was conveniently 26 by the time the draft lottery replaced individual draft boards and confusing deferment policies. Overseas and confused about the war’s beginnings, I found myself in Washington D.C. in late 1967, exploring its politics and, ultimately, joining the protest against it. I was at the first Pentagon march, and have been proud of that over the years.
But Valerie’s remarks brought me up short. Made me remember signs along the route of that march. “Girls say no to boys who go” they shouted. Only years later, as I planned the conference on the legacy of Vietnam, did I realize what that said about boys who did not go—and the girls who supported them. In those pre-feminist or early feminist days, girls’ rights, girls’ minds and bodies were of lesser value and at the service of boys.

As historians and as citizens, it is important to consider world views and blind spots of the times we consider, whether those times be 300 years ago, or mere decades back, pieces of our own times.
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